1. Characters. Make sure you have all your character sheets ready, clearly presented, typo free and checked over by at least one other person. Load the characters with abilities, skills, roleplaying hooks and personality so that every character is useful in play.
2. Scenario Notes. Have at least one page of notes. This need not be a blow by blow detail of the scenario, but it should be at least a set of cues for you and a framework that you can work within to keep the game on track. Similarly maps need not be artistic masterpieces, but a rough sketch/or description of the important aspects of an adventure location can be used as a starting point to expand upon in play. Have a cast list of important npcs, which at least gives them a credible name and their role in the scenario (I always think of Shakespear’s cast lists when drawing these up).
3. Be aware of time pressures. If you are running a game that you have previously run as a home game, make sure that you trim it down to fit the tighter con slot. Ramp up the important moments (i.e. fun) of that game, ditch the scenery chewing moments that only make sense to your home players and abandon the dull and pointless parts.
During the game
The Golden Rule
1. Relax and have fun, you are amongst friends. The players have signed up to play your game and are interested in playing. Even they tell you it was their second choice, don’t let that throw you. Take pride in the fact that they have chosen to play YOUR rather than mooch around at the bar.
Set up (First half hour of the game)
2. Give the players time to digest their characters and ask any questions about them. Also if a player is really uncomfortable about a detail about the character, consider letting them change it.
3. Resist the urge to explain the game system in great detail at this point. If the game system can be quickly explained by going through the character sheet all the better.
4. Schedule comfort breaks. For a four hour game I usually have at least one and a half hours into actual play. Be up front that you are going to have them and when you are scheduling them.
5. End the set up with a punchy intro to the scenario, that gets the action set up and the players ready to go and play!
During the game. (Two to three hours of game time)
6. Be ready to listen to the players and feed off their ideas. If the scenario is going in a different direction to the one and the players are enjoying it, go with it. Conversely if things are going wrong , you can usually tell by the frowns on the player’s faces, stop, assess with the players and redirect the game in the way that brings back the fun. Sometimes you might have to back track or plot edit (‘ok so that didn’t really happen’) , but there is no shame if this if it keeps everyone having fun. Remember it is as much the players game as yours.
7. Keep all the players involved in the game. Even the quiet ones, don’t let loud mouths dominate proceedings. While some players like just to sit back and take in what’s going on (like watching TV), this might be habitual (they might not be used to getting a say) or out of shyness. Encourage them to get stuck in, even if in the short term it takes them out of their comfort zone.
8. Keep the action flowing. Don’t let the players take to much time pondering what to do about that locked dungeon doors. Just when eyes are glazed and hands are twitching and you are about to describe the colour of the moss on the ceiling, bang those orcs on the other side come crashing through!
9. Know when to step back from the table. After an especially hectic scene of action let the players regroup and plan their next move. Sometimes I physically leave the table, taking the opportunity for a quick loo break or trip to the bar, when the players need to plot and plan unhindered by my presence.
Resolution (The last half to one hour of the game)
10.Make sure the game ends in clear and satisfactory manner for the players. Unlike a home game a con session must end in a definite manner with all lose ends tied up. As a GM you must be constantly gently guiding the players towards this point of the game. It helps if you get the players on your side by explaining during set-up and again 5-10 minutes before this ‘end phase’ that the game will wrap up decisively in the last half to one hour of the slot. Avoid ‘anti-climaxes’ and ‘pyrrhic victories’ (unless the whole tone and fun of the game has been driving this way) like the plague. Let each player’s character shine and have his/her moment of glory (or infamy).